Zu'n Nun of Egypt (Died 860 A.D.)

[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]

Ibn Khalliqan, the historian, calls Zu'n Nun "the first person of his age for learning, devotion and communion with the Divinity." His father, who was a native of Nubia, was a slave, enfranchised and adopted by the tribe of Koraish. Zu'n Nun, being asked why he had renounced the world, said, "I went forth from Misr (Egypt) journeying to a certain village, and I fell asleep in one of the deserts on the way. And my eye was opened, and lo, a little bird, still blind, fell from its nest to the ground. Then the ground split open and two trays came forth, one of gold, the other of silver; in one was sesame, and in the other water; and the bird ate of that, and drank of this. 'That', said I, 'is a sufficient warning for me; I renounce the world.' And then I did not quit the door of divine mercy till I was let in."

Having been denounced by his enemies to the Caliph Mutawakkil of Bagdad, he was summoned from Egypt to appear before him. On entering into his presence, he addressed a pious exhortation to the Caliph, who shed tears, and dismissed him honourably. After this, whenever men of piety were spoken of before the Caliph, he would weep and say, "Speaking of pious men, let me have Zu'n Nun."

At Cairo, however, Z'un Nun did not come off so easily. He openly rebuked the vices of the inhabitants, and especially of the local governors, who caused him to be beaten and imprisoned. "All this is as nothing, so I be not separated from thee, O my God," was his exclamation while dragged through the crowded street with blows and insults by the soldiers of the garrison.

Zu'n Nun related the following story of himself. "One day I saw a beautiful palace on the bank of a river where I was performing my devotions. On the roof of this palace I perceived a lovely maiden. Curious of learning who she was, I approached and asked her the name of her master. She answered, 'O Zu'n Nun when you were still a great way off, I took you for a madman, when you came nearer, for a religious man, when you came still nearer, for one of the initiated. I now perceive that you are neither mad, nor religious, nor initiated. If you had been mad, you would not have engaged in religious exercises; if you had been religious, you would not have looked at a person whom you ought not to approach; if you had been initiated, nothing would have drawn your attention away from God.' So saying, she disappeared. I then recognised that she was no mortal, but an angel."

Zu'n Nun relates that he heard his spiritual teacher Schakran recount the following story. "When I was young, I lived on the eastern bank of the Nile, near Cairo, and gained my livelihood by ferrying passengers across to the western side. One day, as I was sitting in my boat near the river edge, an aged man presented himself before me; he wore a tattered robe, a staff was in his hand, and a water-skin suspended from his neck. 'Will you ferry me over for the love of God?' said he. I answered, 'Yes.' 'And will you fulfil my commission for the love of God?' 'Yes.' Accordingly, I rowed him across to the western side. On alighting from the boat, he pointed to a solitary tree some distance off, and said to me, 'Now go your way, and do not trouble yourself further about me till to-morrow; nor indeed will it be in your power, even should you desire it, for as soon as I have left you, you will at once forget me. But to-morrow, at this same hour of noon, you will suddenly call me to mind. Then go to that tree which you see before you, I shall be lying dead in its shade. Say the customary prayers over my corpse, and bury me; then take my robe, my staff and the water-skin, and return with them to the other side of the river; there deliver them to him who shall first ask them of you. This is my commission.'

"Having said this, he immediately departed. I looked after him, but soon lost sight of him; and then, as he had himself already forewarned me, I utterly forgot him. But next day, at the approach of noon, I suddenly remembered the event, and hastily crossing the river alone, I came to the western bank, and then made straight for the tree. In its shade I found him stretched out at full length, with a calm and smiling face, but dead. I recited over him the customary prayers, and buried him in the sand at the foot of the tree; then I took the garment, the staff and the water-skin, and returned to my boat. Arrived at the eastern side, I found standing on the shore to meet me a young man whom I knew as a most dissolute fellow of the town, a hired musician by profession. He was gaudily dressed, his countenance bore the traces of recent debauch, and his fingers were stained with henna. 'Give me the bequest,' said he. Amazed at such a demand from such a character, 'What bequest?' I answered. 'The staff, the water-skin and the garment,' was his reply. Thereupon I drew them, though unwillingly, from the bottom of the boat, where I had concealed them, and gave them to him. He at once stripped off his gay clothes, put on the tattered robe, hung the water-skin round his neck, took the staff in his hand, and turned to depart.

"I, however, caught hold of him and exclaimed, 'For God's sake, ere you go, tell me the meaning of this, and how this bequest has become yours, such as I know you.' 'By no merit of my own, certainly,' answered he; 'but I passed last night at a wedding-feast, with many boon companions, in singing, drinking deep, and mad debauch. As the night wore away and morning drew near, tired out with pleasure and heavy with wine, I lay down to sleep. Then in my sleep one stood by me, and said, "God has at this very hour taken to himself the soul of such an ascetic, and has chosen you to fill his place on earth. Rise and go to the river bank, there you will meet a ferryman in his boat; demand from him the bequest. He will give you a garment, a staff and a water-skin; take them, and live as their first owner lived."'

"Such was his story. He then bade me farewell, and went his way. But I wept bitterly over my own loss, in that I had not been chosen in his place as successor to the dead saint, and thought that such a favour would have been more worthily bestowed on me than on him. But that same night, as I slept, I heard a voice saying unto me, 'Schakran, is it grief to thee that I have called an erring servant of Mine to repentance? The favour is My free gift, and I bestow such on whom I will, nor yet do I forget those who seek Me.' I awoke from sleep, and repented of my impatient ambition."

Zu'n Nun had a disciple who had made the pilgrimage to the Kaaba forty times, and during forty years had passed all his nights in devotional exercises. One day he came to Zu'n Nun and said, "During the forty years that I have practised austerity, nothing of the unseen world has been revealed to me; the Friend (i.e., God) has not spoken to me, nor cast upon me a single look. I fear lest I die and leave this world in despair. Thou, who are the physician of sick souls, devise some means for my cure." "Go," Zu'n Nun replied, "this evening, omit your prayers, eat as much as you like, and go to sleep. Doubtless, if the Friend does not look upon you with an eye of mercy, He will at any rate look upon you with an eye of anger." The dervish went away, but said his prayers as usual, saying to himself that it would be wrong to omit them. Then he ate to satiety, and went to sleep. In his dreams he saw the Prophet, who said to him, "O Dervish, the Friend sends thee his salutation, and says, 'Surely that man is pusillanimous who, as soon as he has arrived at My court, hastens to return; set thy feet on this path like a brave man, and then We will give thee the reward for all the austerities which thou hast practised for forty years, and make thee reach the goal of thy desires.'"

Perhaps someone may ask why Zu'n Nun told his disciple to omit his prayers. We should consider that sheikhs are physicians knowing the remedy for every kind of disease. Now there are many diseases whose treatment involves the use of poisons. Besides, Zu'n Nun knew well that his disciple would certainly not neglect his prayers. There are in the spiritual path (tariqat) many things not justifiable according to the written law (shariat). It is thus that the Lord ordered Abraham to slay his son, an act unlawful according to the written law. But whoever, without having attained to so high a degree in the spiritual life as Zu'n Nun, should act as he did in this matter would be a being without faith or law; for each one in his actions must conform to the decisions of the written law.

Zu'n Nun related once the following. "When I was making the circuit of the Kaaba, I saw a man with a pale face and emaciated frame. I said to him, 'Dost thou really love Him?' 'Yes,' he answered. 'Does the Friend come near thee?' 'Yes, assuredly.' 'Is He kind to thee?' 'Yes, certainly.' 'What!' I exclaimed, 'the Friend approaches thee, He is kind to thee, and look at the wretched state of thy body!' He replied, 'Simpleton! Knowest thou not that they whom the Friend approaches most nearly, are the most severely tried?'"

"One day," said Zu'n Nun, "when I was travelling, I arrived at a plain covered with snow. I saw a fire-worshipper who was strewing seeds of millet there. 'O infidel,' I said, 'why are you strewing this millet?' 'To-day,' he said, 'as it has been snowing, I reflected that the birds would find nothing to eat, and I strewed this millet that they may find some food, and I hope that the Most High will perchance have mercy upon me.' 'The grain which an infidel sows,' I replied, 'does not germinate, and thou art a fire-worshipper.' 'Well,' he answered, 'even if God does not accept my offering, may I not hope that He sees what I am doing?' 'Certainly He sees it,' I said. 'If He sees it,' he remarked 'that is enough for me.'

"Long afterwards I met this infidel at Mecca making the circuit of the Kaaba. He recognised me, and exclaimed, 'O Zu'n Nun, the Most High, witnessing my act, has accepted it. The grain I sowed has indeed sprung up, for God has given me faith, and brought me to His House.' "Seeing him," added Zu'n Nun, "I rejoiced, and cried, 'My God, dost Thou give paradise to an infidel for a handful of millet seed?' Then I heard a voice reply, 'O Zu'n Nun, the mercy of the Lord is without limit.'"

Zu'n Nun daily asked three things of God in prayer. The first was never to have any certainty of his means of subsistence for the morrow. The second was never to be in honour among men. And the third was to see God's face in mercy at his death-hour. Near the end of his life, one of his more intimate disciples ventured to question him on this triple prayer, and what had been its result. "As for the first and second petitions," answered Zu'n Nun, "God has liberally granted them, and I trust in His goodness that He will not refuse me the third."

During his last moments he was asked what he wished. "I wish," he replied, "that if I have only one more breath left, it may be spent in blessing the Most High." As he said this, he breathed his last.

He died 860 a.d., and his tomb is still an object of popular veneration at Cairo.





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